Adam Price Ph.D.

The Unmotivated Teen

Why Your Best Advice Always Backfires

How your teen hears suggestions as expectations he can not meet

Posted Jun 24, 2017

I don’t only see teenagers in my practice. I also see adults, and the ones who are parents of teenagers spend a lot of time talking about their kids.  What I hear, is how worried they are and what they feel their kids must do now to guarantee a successful future. More than ever, going to the “right” college is seen not just as a gateway to opportunity, but as the only way to insure their children will either maintain the social status they were born into, or get a leg up.

One father, a doctor, recently complained that about his  15 year old son’s lackadaisical approach to sport, school, and life in general.  I listened intently as he bemoaned his son’s choice to hang out with friends on Friday night, the eve of a football game, rather than stay home, hydrate, and turn in early.

Another parent, the mother of a 17 year old girl felt a similar frustration with her daughter. She was constantly trying to guide this young woman to do better—write clearer papers, take her tennis more seriously, run for student council. How else would she improve her grades, become captain of the tennis team, and gain leadership experience?

Both of these well –meaning parents felt they had no choice but to push their children. One said:  “I only nag him to do the things he wants to do” and the other felt that “I would be a bad parent if I were not staying on top of all this. I don’t care where she goes to college, but I don’t want her to be disappointed.”

However, since I also have the benefit of working with teenagers I know that the message parents think they think they are sending may not be the ones their kids are receiving. What their sons and daughters here is not encouragement, but expectation. And since these expectations, though perhaps appropriate for a professional athlete or full-fledged adult are out of reach, the teen feels either resentful, or that they are a big disappointment.  A parent may think they are saying “this way to success,” but what the teens hears is “this is the kind of kid you should be and I will be disappointed with anything less.” Too often a parent’s advice is interpreted as a criticism.

One particularly gifted young woman put it best when she said “I find that if I do things on my own, and decide to do them, I feel gratified and satisfied. But if I am cajoled or guilted into doing something I feel numb. Another teen I work with said ““If I don't do something, or don't do it well, or excel, I feel inadequate. I would rather have someone angry at me then disappointed.”

Most teens are not as articulate. More often they will act out their feeling in actions that comprise a passive resistance: failing to do their homework, not trying harder at practice, or looking just plain lazy. However, there is definitely a motivation behind this unmotivated behavior: ‘no matter what I do, I can’t live up to these expectations, so why bother?

Parents of teens often feel like they are walking a tight rope: their son needs guidance, correction, even a little nudge, but often their efforts backfire. Here are several tips, that will help you make sure your teen sees your suggestions as helpful, rather than as expectations he cannot meet:

1).  Remember, he is still a kid:  Frances Jensen, author of The Teenage Brain, reminds parents that teen are not just adults with less miles on them. Even though they may look and sound more like adults than children, teens still have a lot of maturing to do. They are not capable of the same judgment, foresight, and discipline as we are. Yet many parents expect teens to show the maturity and responsibility of a full grown adult rather than seeing them as a work in progress.

2). Understand your teen’s perspective: Your son wants to get into a good college, and even to make varsity,  but being accepted by his friends is equally important. Even if his point of view is illogical (“whenever I study, my grade is worse”) or unrealistic (“I only need 5 hours of sleep” ) your son still needs to know that you understand where he is coming from.

3). Give autonomy, with accountability:  Kids do need to have ownership over their actions, so allowing them to make choices, when appropriate, is important. However, autonomy does not mean that you get to do whatever you want; we are all accountable for the decisions we make. Letting your teen decide how late to stay up to study for an exam or to finish a paper is one thing, but calling him out sick in the morning is another.

 Here is how one parent I see  used these suggestions to work out a conflict with his son. Jason desperately wanted to go to go to a camp reunion in another town where many of the boys would be sleeping over. However, he also had an early Lacrosse game the next morning. At first my patient was angry at his son for being irresponsible. But he quickly realized “he is not irresponsible, he’s 16,” and that the reunion meant the world to him.  So he left the decision up to Jason with the following proviso:  it was not realistic to sleep over and make the morning game. If Jason missed the game, he’d have to let his coach know that evening. When Jason was offered a choice with reasonable parameters, and told he would be held accountable for his decision, this 16 year old suddenly grew up and suggested a “win win” solution: go to party, but sleep at home so he could make the game. His dad, realizing he had created a teachable moment, happily offered to pay for a car service, provided Jason handled the details, and was in the car no later than 11. When Jason walked in the door at 11:30, the father praised him for acting so responsibly, as well as for taking his commitment to the team seriously. How different this outcome would have been had the Dad initially berated young Jason for choosing the reunion party over his game.


The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientests Survival Guide to Rasiing Adolescents and Young Adults. By Frances Jensen and Amy Ellis Nutt